In Train Suicides, a Private Anguish Plays Out in Public

Maria Rodriguez shows her son's high school diploma. Edwin Rodriquez was a young man with bipolar disorder who threw himself in front of a train in late 2006.
Maria Rodriguez shows her son's high school diploma. Edwin Rodriquez was a young man with bipolar disorder who threw himself in front of a train in late 2006. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein and Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 1, 2009; 10:49 AM

On a Wednesday morning in August, Sangjin Lee, an immigrant from South Korea, left his $8-an-hour job as a bakery deliveryman, went through the turnstile at the West Falls Church Metro station and headed to the eastbound platform. He told his co-workers at Vie de France Yamazaki in Vienna that he had some things he needed to do.

About 50 people waited with him for the train. Cortney Ratliff was on her way to work and sat on a bench nursing a bad cold. Katie Hansen, headed to see her fiance, sat down next to Ratliff and nodded off.

A six-car train bound for New Carrollton entered the station. Suddenly, there was a loud thud on the tracks, followed by an awful scream.

Lee, 46, had thrown himself onto the tracks in front of the approaching train. He was pronounced dead at 11:18 a.m.

Lee is one of eight men and women this year who have used Metro to end their lives, putting themselves into the path of trains in what transit officials say is the largest number of such deaths in recent years. It's a violent death and a public one, as victims take their private anguish into one of the most familiar places imaginable.

Experts say some who kill themselves this way act impulsively; others plan it. Just 1 to 2 percent of the 33,300 people who take their lives in the United States every year choose a train to do it -- whether a subway, commuter or freight train -- according to the American Association of Suicidology.

Like Lee, some chose to die on tracks near their home or work. Several displayed or had received a diagnosis of a mental disorder, a common thread discovered by researchers conducting a landmark study of rail suicides for the federal government. Lee, his wife said, had grown up in an abusive family.

"It's fair to say that people who engage in such a violent and traumatic method of suicide are more disturbed psychiatrically," said Lanny Berman, executive director of the suicide association, a prevention group in the third year of a five-year study into track suicides for the Federal Railroad Administration. "Taking pills doesn't always produce death, whereas jumping in front of a subway car is almost always lethal."

Since 2006, at least 17 people have died on Metro's tracks, according to reports in the transit agency's news release database. Although suicide hotlines around Washington have reported a rise in calls during the recession, it's unclear whether the spike in Metro deaths is connected, experts said.

The victims include a 19-year-old Army private who was injured in Iraq and dreamed of police work, a bus driver for Metro who was distraught over a collision and killed himself on his 43rd birthday, a scientist at the dawn of her career and a pizza deliveryman. The latest to die was just 15, a boy who jumped two weeks ago at the Columbia Heights Station.

Some gave their family and friends a hint of what they were going to do. Lee was living in Northern Virginia, working a job that an immigration lawyer had found him and that he hoped would lead to a green card, while his wife, Mina Cho Lee, and their two children lived in Illinois. Lee e-mailed her that he was depressed and hated his job. In his small apartment in Arlington County, she found a newspaper clipping from June 23 with news of another tragedy, the Metro crash that killed nine people.

Some gave obvious warnings. This month, Josh Fueston, a strapping Army private first class from Bellingham, Wash., who was being treated at Walter Reed Army hospital for injuries he suffered during a five-month tour in Iraq, told friends on his Facebook page that he was going to kill himself. He did not say when or how.

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